The Closet (Le Placard) Review
Although the vast majority of comedies about homosexuals, or feigned homosexuals, descend to the usual tiresome stereotypes of wrist-slappingly camp men with high squeaky voices and, if one is especially unlucky, a Freddy Mercury moustache, there is the occasional comic gem, such as the hilariously amusing La Cage Aux Folles. Therefore, given that Francis Veber not only wrote the screenplay for that in 1978, but also wrote and directed some of the funniest French comedies of recent years, such as the uproarious Le Diner de Cons, one might be forgiven for hoping that The Closet (or Le Placard, as it is properly called) might be of an equally high standard. Unfortunately, it only half lives up to expectations; some great comic performances and inspired lines are rather spoilt by some plot miscalculations and a rather depressingly reactionary attitude towards those who are, in some way, ‘different’.
The film’s plot concerns the decent but awesomely dull Francois Pignon (Auteuil), an office worker in a rubber factory who has a number of personal problems; his wife has divorced him and he is unable to get over her, his son refuses to have anything to do with him, he has a secret crush on his female boss (Laroque), he is working opposite a rugby-playing lout named Felix (Depardieu), and, to make things worse, he is about to be fired. However, his new neighbour Belone (Autand) proposes a scheme that will allow Pignon to retain his job; he will doctor some photographs of Pignon in a compromising situation, make it seem as if Pignon is about to be fired for his sexuality, and watch the sparks fly, which they promptly do, especially when Felix is forced to be nice to Pignon on pain of his own dismissal.
It bears saying, before getting onto criticism, that the film is frequently uproariously funny, even if the comedy is about as broad and obvious as Depardieu’s performance; Veber deserves a great deal of credit for getting an all star cast of genuinely good actors, all of whom make the well-worn material seem far wittier than it actually is. There is one moment towards the end, when an institutionalised Depardieu rhapsodises, straight-faced, on the difficulties of forming a rugby team full of manic depressives- ‘All the weeping makes the scrums very difficult’- where the film briefly elevates itself to the almost insane comic genius of the very best French farce, an effect helped by all the stars; Auteuil is superb in a part that could easily have descended into sentimental burlesque (and almost certainly will do if Robin Williams ever ends up making the remake that has been threatened), Depardieu is uproarious, and Jean Rochefort is highly enjoyable as the confused head of the firm, utterly unable to cope with the various revelations of his employees’ sexual preferences.
However, the film is firmly grounded in the realms of ‘good’ rather than ‘great’ by two major flaws. The first is that Veber disobeys a key rule of farce; namely, that the central character is unaware of the comic chaos that is happening to him. Thus, had the Pignon character been unaware that he was regarded as gay in the first place, his disbelief at the (reluctantly) changing attitudes of the staff would have been far more effective, with a great deal more comic mileage. The second fault is that the film has a depressingly antiquated worldview, where gay men are still regarded as amusing but bizarre sideshow acts, rather than completely normal people. Even the fact that Pignon's neighbour reveals that he is gay does nothing for the character, other than attempting to act as a heavy-handed indication that times have changed.
Although the homophobia inherent in the film is obviously exaggerated for comic effect, there’s a feeling that some of the jokes here would be more comfortable in a 1970s sitcom, such as the appearance of a black character for the sole purpose of being called a ‘spade’, and the casual revelation that Depardieu’s character cheerfully goes gay-bashing at weekends (which, to be fair, is actually far less offensive in context). It would be pretentious to attempt to link the film’s attitudes in any way to the rise of the right in France at the moment, especially given that the film was made long before the sceptre of Jean-Marie Le Pen materialised at the polls, but it still reflects an innate conservatism that many might feel is either mildly offensive or simply out of place.
Overall, then, this is a fun little comedy with some laugh-out-loud lines, some good performances and some witty moments of comic invention. However, the slightly sour taste that it leaves behind when over means that it is less easy to recommend than similar, more good-natured examinations of office politicking; although the inevitable remake will doubtless be sentimental and overindulgent to its lead actors, one can but hope that it will be a film that has updated its view of society in the last twenty-five years.